The Music that Changed my Life, Part 2

Continuing from The Music that Changed my Life, Part 1, this second act of my musical journey takes me from the Shire of my tiny Hobbit-hood into the dark night of high school and beyond.

As the late '80s segued into the '90s and I segued from childhood to something else, life found me moving into a different house and different schools, leaving the church of my youth, and breaking bread with all kinds of new souls. Alongside the music of the time as it shifted from pop to hip-hop, and from glam to grunge, this time period also found me catching up on some classics, and mixing them up with the signs of the times. While some sounds have faded into the past, the ones which have stayed with me continue to be those which invoke a sense of storytelling, a longing for something that is lost, and in many cases, a cry of rage from the wilderness.

In the twilight of shifting decades, the hard rock & metal genre sucked me in with all of its loudness, groove, anger, and baggage, for better or for worse. I caught the tail end of hair-metal just in time to enjoy enough of it before its demise, from the arena acts of Def Leppard to the club-sized blues-rock of Great White and many bands in-between. From the phoenix in the ashes like Aerosmith (my first rock concert in 1990) to the new sounds of Guns n' Roses in particular (those guitar notes in Sweet Child o' Mine still strike a pun intended), many of these songs became anthems for the werewolf-like metamorphoses of my body, soul and changing landscape. From this canon of sex, drugs and rock n' roll that was the soundtrack to many a high school dance and the local St. Joan's Fair growing up, some of this stuff I look back on and cringe a little bit.  But the remnants which still grace my playlists as guilty pleasures tend to be mostly the "power ballads". At times, many of these bands could pull off some surprisingly haunting material when they slowed down a bit.  Songs like Leppard's Love Bites, Great White's She Only, Tesla's Love Song, Scorpions' Still Loving You, Giant's I'll See You in my Dreams, Motley Crue's Home Sweet Home and others still show up in the shuffle occasionally for some chords of nostalgia and surprises.  Skid Row's I Remember You still remains a personal favorite, as it moves between quiet and loud, soaring and screaming, highs and lows, and tells a simple tale of loss and longing. It still sings to me of every broken heart and every dear friend who has come and gone. Outside of the anger and rebellion that drove their image, ballads like this exposed more of the honest brokenness in these bands which helped me come to grips with my own, and to understand the brokenness of others. When high school liked to separate the "burn-outs" from the "good kids," embracing the metal genre helped me connect with some of my angry classmates and get to know who they were underneath. Every now and then behind all the leather, spit and polish, there remains a cry from the heart, a rage for justice, and a Psalmist's call for beauty.

Rush - Moving Pictures
My high school years were an interesting time of participating in the new tunes of the day and mixing them up with songs from 10-to-20 years prior which I just hadn't caught up to yet. The early-'80s canon of Rush was another musical adventure introduced to me by my friend Doug (who I had mentioned in Part 1 had introduced me to many other bands), and I still remember the first time he played for me that opening BAWWWRRrrrrr note that begins Tom Sawyer. Before too long I had my own copy of Moving Pictures and kept playing it ever since. Limelight, The Camera Eye, and the dark storytelling of Witch Hunt remain one of my continued musical geek-fest revelries. (Funny how I ended up moving to Canada later in life eh?) The other Rush single which Doug got me hooked on, from a different album, was this day my favorite song of theirs. Any time, any mood, it never gets skipped from the moment those opening keyboard notes strike.

Journey - Greatest Hits
Am I not the world's biggest geek?  (I'm not ashamed.)  I think it was my high school friend Jerome Nyson who re-introduced me to Journey.  I say "re-introduced" because I had been un-knowingly listening to them for years without knowing who they were. I remember getting their Greatest Hits album in 10th grade and upon hearing beautiful songs like Faithfully, Who's Crying Now, Don't Stop Believing and Open Arms, I had my first experience of feeling like I was a little kid in my parents' car again, as I had heard them there first on the radio. For all its kitsch, there's nothing like a good Journey song now and again.  In the same vein of Marty McFly saying of his "Enchantment Under the Sea Dance" performance in Back to the Future, "something that cooks", the music I tend to gravitate towards is "something that soars."  The guitar notes and arena-soaked vocals of Journey's Steve Perry soar, that's the best word for it...and Separate Ways is still my favorite song for driving down the freeway at night.

Led Zeppelin
I don't remember how it started or who introduced me to them...I think several people did at once: my Dad, and my friends Doug and Blake telling me I should listen to Led Zeppelin. If memory serves, I discovered Stairway to Heaven on a compilation CD of different classic rock songs, and for at least two weeks in a row sometime in 10th grade, I sat in a chair in my basement and just listened to that one song every day, right after coming home from school. After a long day of the terror and tribulation that was high school, there was something about the power behind this song, which Robert Plant himself even summed up perfectly, "I think this is a song of hope."  The visions inherent in the rest of Led Zeppelin's un-titled fourth album followed, and then I became transfixed by their concert film The Song Remains the Same. For Christmas, Santa brought me their 4-CD box set, and by then the damage was done, I was hooked and my inner geek was singing. As far as actual albums go, the fourth one still rings true as my favorite for listening to all the tracks in order. Through a sometimes uneven discography, that album stands as their crowning achievement, before their later albums descended into a few hits and misses (mostly misses by the last album or two).  Physical Graffiti comes in at a close second favorite, along with the Song Remains soundtrack as my favorite complete works, among other singles, moments and masterpieces. I'm still drawn to the songs which make you feel like you're standing outside the Bron-Y-Aur cottage in the Welsh countryside where some of them were written. Pieces like the haunting live version of No Quarter, the sound of Dazed and Confused and Ramble On, the beauty of that keyboard solo in the last two minutes of Thank You, and the epic stories told by so many others invoke tapestries of legends and lands of myth, folklore and strangely religious visions. Even the lyrics to Stairway seem to bring to light biblical imagery like Jacob's encounter of angels ascending and descending into Heaven, and of a Piper calling us to join him. The significance of Led Zeppelin continues to unfold for me in the more recent years that I've finally started reading more of Tolkien and seeing the influence his art had on their music. I keep coming back to them, again and again, and they never cease to surprise me and show me new insights.

Pink Floyd
As a kid, the only thing I knew about Pink Floyd was from the day Dad had left his Umma Gumma record playing in the basement, and I wandered into the room while Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving with a Pict came chanting out of the stereo. Confused and thinking the room was full of monsters, I took one look at the album cover, freaked out and ran away screaming. But then in the summer of 1990, after an awkward transition into high school, my friend Blake Arnold led me to discover Pink Floyd The Wall. I had heard of this album before, but never actually heard it (out of fear after my traumatic Umma Gumma experience).  But once I relented and tore down that wall, so to speak, I realized it was unlike anything I ever heard before. The songs blended together with sound effects, voices, shifting musical styles, strange dialogue scenes, and a final trial sequence which sounded like Monty Python doing opera. I didn't know what any of it meant, but it fired up my imagination to what music could be, and that an album didn't always have to be a collection of individual songs separated by silence. Seeing the movie then filled in some of the gaps of the story for me, and sucked me in even more. This auto-biographical tale, of Roger Waters' plea to know his late war-veteran father, spoke to me for one reason or another, if not for its subject matter at least for the creative vision behind his musical therapy session. It was like discovering a lost treasure.

From this point forward, I began catching myself up on the rest of the Pink Floyd canon, from Dark Side of the Moon to their earlier Syd Barrett-era records. I remember my uncle Bill telling me the ultimate Floyd song to have was called Welcome to the Machine, which I tracked down to its source on their album Wish You Were Here. While my playlists are full of songs from the entire Pink Floyd story, all things considered this is my favorite album of theirs. The way it sounds, the way the songs flow into each other, the journey it takes you on, and the love and longing inherent in the tribute to their friend Syd. When the founder of their band descended into madness, they wrote this poetic album which basically says, "We see beyond what you've become and choose to see and remember who we know you really are." It reminds me of the quote by Frederich Buechner: “If we are to love our neighbors, before doing anything else we must see our neighbors. With our imagination as well as our eyes, that is to say like artists, we must see not just their faces but the life behind and within their faces. Here it is love that is the frame we see them in.”  This loving plea in Shine On You Crazy Diamond even inspired me to preach a sermon in church about it.

I'm grateful that discovering Pink Floyd when I did allowed me to experience them in concert at the Pontiac Silverdome in Detroit, on their final tour in 1994. It's probably the most incredible concert I've ever been blessed to witness, and literally shone like a blinding light of hope during a particularly difficult period of my life. I stood transfixed, in tears and unable to move during the guitar solo of Comfortably Numb, when the entire arena was baptized in a giant ball of light which opened up into the shape of an angelic beacon. The significance of that display still haunts me today as I muse over the words, the melodies and the somber beauty of this band who used to frighten me.

The Who-Tommy
Another album which my friend Blake introduced me to was The Who's rock opera Tommy. Yet again, this was another album which told a story, not in the same multi-layered fashion as The Wall, but told one all the same. I was at first intrigued by the sound of it, and became more interested once I began piecing together the story it was telling. The way it blended rock with some classical instrumentation & different styles/movements, I became rather fond of Tommy alongside the other classic rock songs I embraced during high school.  I still love listening to this album today, and as a full listening experience it continues to grow on me and open new worlds. It still stands out as being unique and remains so over time.

As much as I love the original Tommy album, on a personal level I feel the storytelling is a rough draft for what was more fully realized in the Broadway stage version, which I saw when it toured into Detroit in 1993, during my senior year of high school. To this day I'm dying to see this on stage again, if it ever comes back. It was so powerful, so masterfully done in terms of the music, visuals, lights and effects...easily one of the most amazing productions I've ever seen.  But the nuances in the story were also wonderful. Where the album focuses more on the inward journey of Tommy, culminating in him reaching a more meditative, personal enlightenment (characteristic of the '60s pseudo-Eastern philosophies it was based on), the Broadway version uplifted the story to bring it closer to home. In the trials and struggles of the Walker family as they deal with  Tommy's behavior as a deaf, dumb and blind boy, I could see echoes of the challenges my family faced growing up with my autistic brother. I related by proxy to that story, of desperately trying to connect with someone who lived in his own world, so to speak. Being drawn into the power and emotion behind the whole show, the finale and closing performance of Listening to You had me awe-struck with tears streaming down my face in a way I had never experienced in a musical production. The redemptive closing to the story as Tommy embraces his family and his past spoke to me in a way I wasn't sure how to fathom. Looking back, I can see why this song and the imagery behind it have stayed with me as a sign of hope and healing in the ripples of some family hardships since then. In light of my faith journey and the continued healing it brings, the lyrics to that song continue to unfold with new meaning and promise which bring me to my knees:  Listening to you, I feel the music, Gazing at you, I get the heat, Following you, I climb the mountain, I get excitement at your feet, Right behind you, I see the millions, On you, I see the glory, From you I get opinions, From you I get the story....   I do believe, as they said in the movie Almost Famous, that if you "listen to Tommy with a candle burning you'll see your entire future." I see a future of hope in a manner I can't explain, except to surrender to it.

My ultimate guilty pleasure. Amidst the wave of metal bands, there were some who spoke of things other than partying and debauchery, and when they did, something in me would sometimes pay attention. The music video for Queensrÿche's song Empire came out of nowhere to me one day on Mtv, and something clicked as I was intrigued by their look, their sound, and their message. Their single Best I Can followed soon after, pulling me in further, and by the time Silent Lucidity finally soared out of the radio with all its Floyd-ish qualities, I was making a bee-line to get their album and try to figure out who these guys were. Their songs seemed to hold up a mirror to the fallen world, yet sing about it with a plea of urgency and hope. Through songs like Resistance and Della Brown they used beautiful sounds to expose the neglected things around us, pondered the mystery of lucid dreaming as a possibility for escape from it all, and closed with a powerful epic asking the question Is Anybody Listening?  Few of my friends shared my attraction to Queensrÿche, but if anybody was listening, it was me. The Empire album, recorded in Seattle and Vancouver BC, had a feeling to it which instantly captivated me...the way the liner note photos were packaged, the way the music sounded, and the images they invoked, actually felt like a rainy city surrounded by dark green forests. When I look back and consider the fact that I was later called to reside in the Pacific Northwest, I get the sense there was something in this music that threw a hook into me and started pulling.

Naturally I began investigating the rest of their discography to date. I picked up their rock opera Operation: Mindcrime and didn't like it at first but before too long it definitely grew on me big time (Once again, another example of musical storytelling which drew me in.) I saw them perform the whole album live on their Building Empires tour in 1991, and enjoyed it as an interesting dark piece of rock theater. Today Mindcrime doesn't always grace my playlists outside of an occasional nostalgic listen, but I do enjoy more of their strange gothic science-fiction metal from The Warning and Rage for Order now and again. But the other full Queensrÿche album which resonated with me the most personally was their follow-up Promised Land, released later when I was at University of Michigan, in 1994. Dark, brooding and exceedingly personal, the album spoke of many of the same struggles I was going through at that time; I heard myself reflected in songs like Bridge and Someone Else, and was moved by the beauty and sadness of Lady Jane and the title track. It combined the soaring melodies of Empire with the multi-layered instrumentations and sound effects which made their older material compelling. I saw them in concert once again on the Promised Land tour, which also featured a few creative theatrical stage elements. Following this album, their discography has been either pretty dismal to hit-and-miss...a few good tracks here and there, but nothing which comes close to their earlier repertoire. All things considered, though few others know them and they are not what they used to be, the stories and sounds of Queensrÿche have been the soundtrack to much of my life, and I'm still listening.

Pearl Jam- Ten
Like Queensrÿche before them, another band from the Seattle music scene that called to me was Pearl Jam. The grunge movement hit hard during my later high school years, and I rode that wave proudly with a flannel shirt around my waist at all times. I remember reading a review of Pearl Jam's Ten in our high school newspaper, by my friend Justin Frahm. He praised this breakthrough album to the ends of the Earth, describing the grace of Eddie Vedder's vocals as they would jump from a "whisper to a growl".  Intrigued and having faith in Justin's musical judgement, I made the same discovery myself.  When Pearl Jam hit the scene, there was something about their look, their message, their sound and their presence at that particular time which was dynamic, electric, and extremely profound. I went with a group of friends to Lollapalooza in 1992, where Pearl Jam was there along with Soundgarden, Ministry, Red Hot Chili Peppers and others. As we found a spot for our blanket on the Pine Knob lawn, the day started with a forgettable performance by Lush, and then Pearl Jam hit the stage as the second act in the hot mid-afternoon. I will never forget how quickly, suddenly, and with such reverence the entire crowd STOOD UP, and then the energy and flying sod that followed for the next hour or was awe-inspiring. The amazing set list grew to a feverish crescendo during the song Porch as the crowd rushed the stage like a magnet.  Even from a distance way back on the lawn, we could feel it. Ten remains their masterpiece for me, a great anthem of honesty and rage which came out at a time when so much of the popular music around it became more and more fake. Re-visiting this album today, I still get lost in its sound, aggression and lyrical prose.  It's the kind of album that makes you feel like standing on the edge of a mountain and screaming. There is even a sense of spiritual longing in songs like Garden and Release, which have moved me profoundly. Release in particular, as I read recently, was an organically improvised composition which came out of Eddie Vedder's longing to know his real father (who he never knew). Entering into this song imaginatively and compassionately, his frustrated growls and quiet whispering lyrics as they explode into soaring cries of the heart, have moved me to the edge of myself on many an occasion. I enter into Ten with gratitude for the exploration of angst it belts forth, tinged with a sense of hope and longing for redemption.

Toad the Wet Sprocket- Fear
Somehow in my senior year of high school I stumbled across Toad the Wet Sprocket, whose name came from a Monty Python sketch. I don't remember exactly how I found was either through hearing their hit single All I Want on the radio or seeing their music video for Walk on the Ocean. Either way, I found this album and got hooked on it.  Their sound, their storytelling, and their lyrics invoked a sense of mystery, melancholy and beauty, particularly in the tracks Is It For Me, Before You Were Born, I Will Not Take These Things for Granted, and my absolute favorite one Stories I Tell. The latter song is another one of those "stand on a mountain and yell" experiences.  Somehow I can relate to it...Subtle salvation in poems and prose, Hiding our heads in a shadow of home, I wasn't looking for wreaths or for bells, just someone to listen to stories I tell.  This album has gotten me through much in life, and continues to move me today. 

And now, some honorable mentions...

So much more could potentially be said, but for brevity's sake I shall summarize a few more musical discoveries from my high school & university days which grabbed me, moved me, called to me, or changed my life in one way or another. Several songs from these artists still show up in my playlists now and again, taking me back to the days I first heard them and tickling my ears from afar. 

When Oliver Stone's movie came out in 1991 I ended up going on a major Doors kick, due to the music and the imagery they invoked appealing to my teen angst at the time. Today the song which resonates with me the most is Riders on the Storm, which always puts me in a good mellow mood when I need it. The End is another song which takes me back to specific fond memories from my high school days, and speaks to me on a gut level I can't really explain. Much like today's kids are discovering the '80s and '90s music they weren't alive for, my friends and I gobbled up so much of this '60s music, including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Crosby, Stills & Nash as well.

My senior year I also discovered Smashing Pumpkins through their Gish album, and was listening to them long before Siamese Dream finally arrived and pushed them farther into the mainstream. I still love tracks from both albums for the way they sound...from quiet, lilting and tranquil to loud and aggressive in the blink of an eye. It's strange how even their heavier songs sound mellow at the same time. I also just liked the sound of their band name.  I came to loathe a lot of the popular music of the '90s that came after grunge died out, but the Pumpkins stood out as being unique and powerful, especially for that time.

While at U of M I discovered Phish through their album Lawn Boy, introduced to me by my friends Matt & Aaron Peabody (with whom I was in a band called Snapple....that's a whole other story to tell in itself). The sound of Phish was such a nice departure from the standard hard rock of the time, merging challenging time signatures with sounds of jazz, funk, bluegrass and general beauty and quirkiness. Before long I discovered their album Rift, which is still my favorite, as it's something of a concept record that takes you on a strange journey. From the title track and Fast Enough for You to the soul-stirring Silent in the Morning, it's pure magic that takes me back into so many stories of my own.

It should also be noted that I became a rampant disciple of Frank Zappa's music in a huge way during my university days, after only being familiar with a few of his songs I heard on The Dr. Demento Show as a kid. His discography was always so vast I was never sure where to start, but his Strictly Commercial greatest hits compilation helped me sample him and got me hooked. I used to play hour-long blocks of Zappa mixes on my college radio show, along with all kinds of other weird stuff, old and new. Out of his actual albums, my favorite to this day is surely One Size Fits All, along with Apostrophe, random songs like Muffin Man and some of his live recordings. Not all of his repertoire has stayed in my regular playlists, but every now and then, when I feel like something completely different, Frank is a good friend to drop in on.

Peter Gabriel- Secret World Live
This chapter of my musical life journey closes around the time I was finishing up at U of M, and so there is one more album which should be given some attention. The music of Peter Gabriel had been with me in little flashes through much of my first encounter with him was a dreadfully fearful one, when I was about 8-years-old and saw his music video for Shock the Monkey.  It freaked me right out and gave me nightmares. A few years later, his brilliant animated videos for Sledgehammer and Big Time were a little easier to handle. Even later, the song In Your Eyes would become a sentimental favorite for many reasons, and Solsbury Hill grabbed my attention and pulled at my heartstrings for one reason or another. But all this time, despite my attraction to his artistry, I never actually owned a full album of his, and so it was that I stumbled upon Secret World Live as a way to culminate his body of work into one experience. It blew me away how full and incredible he made these songs sound on stage.  As time has gone on, I have come to love these performances more and more, reading into the spiritual power of their lyrics and the celebration of life they encompass.  (Part of his live band was vocalist Paula Cole, who had some success with her own solo album This Fire around this time.  That was another album, in particular her single Me, which spoke to me a great deal in some personal soul-searching I was going through.)

When I depart from this planet, I think it would be incredibly moving if I could be surrounded by loved ones amid a chorus of Listening to You from Tommy, hear the keyboard solo from Led Zeppelin's Thank You as my soul floats away from my body, and then enter into the arms of my Savior dancing to the live version of Peter Gabriel's In Your Eyes. That would be a good life.

The musical journey concludes in Part 3, which takes me on the road to Vancouver and the adventures I would find there...

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